'Putting the most disadvantaged people first': President of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva, explains in an interview his economic policies, and - what he thinks about the Hamas government in Gaza, Iran's nuclear program and Holocaust denial

Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva (photo: Agência Brasil)

Voyage to South America – Part 4

PUBLISHED IN |  Mar 27, 06

BRASILIA. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva (Lula) came to power in late 2002 on the wings of great promise. “My goal is for every child in Brazil to eat three meals a day,” the president said in his inauguration speech, and he immediately became a figure of admiration in his country and elsewhere. The new president of the largest and most important country on the continent effectively paved the way for the left-wing leaders who have since been elected in South America.

The rhetoric that accompanied Lula on his road to power was distinctly radical. He launched sharp attacks on the International Monetary Fund and on the market policy as being responsible for Brazil’s distress. It was only natural for a left-wing leader who came up through the ranks of the metal workers’ union in Sao Paulo and who lost a finger in a lathe accident, to advocate this economic line. But on the eve of the elections – it was Lula’s fourth run for the presidency – the markets began to react nervously when the polls showed him in the lead.

To calm the Brazilian business world and the international markets – Brazil has the world’s ninth-largest economy – Lula decided to make a shift. He exchanged the shirts he usually wore for elegant suits (rumor has it that he bought some of them at Daslu) and issued a “Letter to Brazilians,” in which he pledged to uphold all the economic commitments of the previous government. As such, he effectively promised not to depart from the economic policy introduced by his predecessor, against which he had railed so fiercely.

“When asked many years ago whether I was a communist,” the president of Brazil told Haaretz in an interview, “I answered that I was a lathe operator. I do not believe in ideological pigeon-holes, and insist that each country must find its own sovereign path, according to its national interests.”

Considering the sensitive situation that existed in the Brazilian economy when he took office, he says, he had no choice but to try to stabilize the economy. However, he adds, “economic stability and fiscal prudence are not ends in themselves, but means to our major goals. I am not in a position to comment on the Israeli economy, but I can refer you to Brazil’s recent experience. My government has guaranteed that economic stability will become a tool in the fight against poverty, hunger and inequality, and not an excuse to increase social injustice. If you want a definition, I would say that our model puts people, especially the most disadvantaged in our society, first. Brazil still has a long way to go to overcome its problems, but over the past three years we have shown that economic responsibility and fiscal prudence can be an asset on the course to sustained economic growth and development.”

Reducing inequality

Lula with Fidel Castro, 2003 (photo: Agência Brasil)

Lula with Fidel Castro, 2003 (photo: Agência Brasil)

How do you explain the left-ward political drift in South America?

Lula: “Notwithstanding the differences among our countries or the political orientations of the governments that have come to power, we share many goals. Whether I talk to the president of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe, or to the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, we share the fundamental concern of lifting our people out of poverty, reducing inequality and fostering regional integration.”

Raul Zibechi, of the news magazine Brecha, says that the most interesting phenomenon in Lula’s regime is his foreign policy, which is trying to offset the dominance of the United States in the region. Lula is trying, for example, to mediate between the United States and Venezuela, and also trying to aid Bolivia and Ecuador. By this he is trying to become a player in the regional and world political arena, and at the same time to preserve good relations with Washington.

Lula: “Brazil has always been firmly committed to multi lateralism and to the peaceful solutions to outstanding security issues within the United Nations framework. Clearly many of the crucial security questions that the world faces today are reinforced by the adverse social and economic conditions under which many millions live. I therefore have sought to engage the international community and the developed countries in particular in the global fight against poverty and hunger. That is the fundamental threat for which there are only global solutions, based on solidarity and cooperation.”

Can Brazil forge an economic alliance with China, India and other developing countries and thus create a counterweight to the European Union and the United States?

“We sincerely hope to develop ever closer ties with China, India and other developing countries. We also want to deepen our relations with the EU and the United States. These two policies complement each other. We do not seek a confrontational stance with other major players: rather we strive to play a constructive part by putting forward concrete proposals, as well as to promote balance and inclusiveness.”

In the past two years you have promoted a significant dialogue with the Arab world, such as by convening a Latin American-Arab summit meeting in Brasilia. Is the purpose purely economic, or is it an attempt to create a counterweight to American dominance in the region?

“Our dialogue with the Arab world is part of a wider movement in terms of foreign policy. We want to increase our trade, our political, social and cultural relations, as well as cooperation, with developing countries. This new policy includes African countries, Asian countries, large developing economies, such as Russia, South Africa, India and China. The deep influence of Arab civilization in the shaping of the Iberian cultures and the importance of Arab migration in formation of the Brazilian society are, among many other reason, paramount to explain the privileged place of the Arab world in the context of Brazilian external relations. The May 2005 Brasilia summit’s main objective was to close the gap between two regions of the developing world.”

The most charismatic politician

Lula with George Bush, 2002 (photo: Agência Brasil)

Lula with George Bush, 2002 (photo: Agência Brasil)

What is your government’s position on the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections?

“All international observers, including the Brazilian official delegation, confirmed that the electoral process was legitimate and reflected, in an adequate way, the popular will in Palestine. Brazil has traditionally backed the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and to an independent and sovereign state, living peacefully side-by-side with Israel. Brazil is ready to maintain its dialogue with any Palestinian government committed to the peace process and that accepts Israel’s right to exist.”

What is Brazil’s position concerning Iran’s nuclear project and on the comments made by Iran’s president about the Holocaust?

“Brazil reiterated the inalienable right of all the parties to the NPT [Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty] to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. During the last section of the IAEA, the Brazilian delegation reiterated the position that the Iranian issue should continue to be treated within the agency and that all efforts should be made toward a peaceful and long-lasting solution.

“Regarding the second part, Brazil’s position is clear: We reject any denial of the existence of the Holocaust as an historical event. After World War II, Brazil received hundreds of Jews who survived the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis. We must not forget the legacy of ambassador Souza Dantas who, during the war, as ambassador in Paris, granted Brazilian visas to hundreds of Jews, saving them from Nazism.”

Lula will run again in the presidential elections later this year. After a lengthy period of lukewarm results in the polls, mainly because of a wave of corruption scandals forcing the resignation of the finance minister in March, Lula is again the leading candidate, and it seems he has good prospects of winning. According to Jose Barela, from Veja magazine: “Lula is still the most charismatic politician in the country.”